A Critical Introduction to Terry Eagleton’s Literary theory

This classic work covers all of the major movements in literary studies in this century. Noted for its clear, engaging style and unpretentious treatment, Literary Theory has become the introduction of choice for anyone interested in learning about the world of contemporary literary thought.

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of Literary Theory’s debut, Terry Eagleton reflects on the state of theory in academia today, the growth of antitheory (itself an interesting theoretical subject), its common—if problematic—place among survey coursework, and theory’s continued relevance to scholarly pursuits. In this contemporary, retrospective moment, as scholars critically analyze the incredibly broad impact of the theoretical movement, Literary Theory remains an essential initiation to the intellectually stimulating world of theoretical analysis.
According to New York Times Book Review, “This concise and lucid volume offers a satisfying survey of all the major theories, from structuralism in the 1960s to deconstruction today, that have made academic criticism both intriguing and off-putting to the outsider.” ” The best handbook to those arcane ics and isms, both for academy members and for any civilians who, having heard the distant roar of professorial cannons, might wonder what the skirmishing’s about.”
Literary Theory has the kind of racy readability that one associates more often with English critics who have set their faces resolutely against theory. . . . It’s not just a brilliant polemical essay, it’s also a remarkable feat of condensation, explication, and synthesis. . . . Stimulating and entertaining.
A brilliant, agile performance: urgent and racy, witty and combative, lucid and compelling. A concise guide to the most interesting and mystifying trends in the study of literature over the last fifty years.
The preface to Eagleton’s readable discussion declares, “This book sets out to provide a reasonably comprehensive account of modern literary theory,” and the chapter headings–”Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, Reception Theory,” “Post-Structuralism,” “Psychoanalysis”–suggest that a survey of competing schools of thought will follow. But in fact, the conceptual analysis is thin, the methodological description hasty. Instead, the book reads like a textbook case of commentary by genetic fallacy and ethical consequence. To the patient exposition of terms and concepts Eagleton prefers the oblique adumbration, as when he writes, “Leavis and Husserl both turn to the consolations of the concrete, of what can be known on the pulses, in a period of major ideological crisis [the post-World War I revolutions].” Expounding the poetics of this or that theory, Eagleton minimizes intellectual heritage and reckons ideas by their political affiliations. He attributes New Criticism to a Southern agrarian reaction to Northern industrialism, calling it “a full-blooded irrationalism, one closely associated with religious dogma. . .and with the right-wing ‘blood and soil’ politics of the agrarian movement.” The intellectual fathers of New Critical aesthetics–Kant, Hegel, and Coleridge–play no role in this genesis. In the chapter on post-structuralism, Eagleton spends little time detailing the arguments of founding tests like “Différence,” and instead strings together deconstructive platitudes–”Meaning, we might say, is thus never identical to itself”–and then summarizes, “Post-structuralism was a product of that blend of euphoria and disillusionment, liberation and dissipation, carnival and catastrophe, which was 1968.” Again, a political context stands as source and explanation.
In turn, when assessing these theories, Eagleton focuses on their ethical results. New Critical method he reduces to “a recipe for political inertia, and thus for submission to the political status quo,” one that licenses practitioners not to “oppose McCarthyism or further civil rights.” Post-structuralism comes down to “a convenient way of evading such political questions [as Vietnam, Guatemala, Stalinism] altogether.” How the definition of a poem as a verbal icon or as a play of signs kept one from storming the Columbia University administration building Eagleton does not say. But the fact that one could draw parallels, however factitious, between a formalist analysis that asked no political questions and a general political quietism suffices for Eagleton to indict New Criticism and deconstruction as reactionary bad faith. How one reads a poem and how one engages in political life are all of a piece. Daniel Bell may claim to be “a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture,” and the art historian Anthony Blunt may have counseled students to downplay politics in their studies, all the while serving as a postwar Soviet operative in England, but ultimately, Eagleton presses, inquirers have no latitude to modulate their actions, for there is no real disjunction between scholarship and social conduct, between teaching and voting. One cannot be a progressive on issues of, say, gun control and abortion rights and a conservative in matters of scholarly method.
Literary Theory: An Introduction hardly counts as a serious discussion of literary theory, but its tactics have come to dominate humanities criticism. Commentaries on ideological origins and ethical results far exceed conceptual analyses and logical expositions. Evaluating concepts and arguments by their political backgrounds and implications has become a disciplinary wont, a pattern of inquiry. It is the natural method of constructionist epistemology, the outlook that will not distinguish between a truth and its origination, which is to say the outlook that is not really an epistemology at all. It speaks an epistemological language, but it has no epistemological principles. This is one of the curiosities of social constructionism, and why people err in attacking it on epistemological grounds, that is, on grounds of truth, evidence, and objectivity. Constructionists affirm that truth is a construct, dependent upon the conditions of its discovery. This is a flat contradiction, since truth by definition is independent of the means by which it is discovered. If constructionists mean by “truth” merely “what passes for truth,” then the contradiction disappears, but now we are no longer talking about truth in epistemological terms, but in historical terms, that which is accepted as truth in this or that time and place. The acceptance of something as true is one thing, the truth of that belief is another. Establishing the latter is a routine epistemological task. Documenting the former is a traditional historical endeavor, carried out by Gibbon as well as by Sedgwick. In this distinction lies the novelty of social constructionism: in a word, constructionism disregards it, mingling history and epistemology, fusing what is true and what passes for true, identifying discovery with justification.
For this reason, inquirers sensitive to such distinctions accuse constructionism of philosophical confusion and methodological incorrectness. Philosopher-antagonists like John Searle and Susan Haack express contempt for the logical credentials of constructionist arguments, while conservative critics like Roger Kimball mock their sophomoric relativism. But the continued popularity of the school of thought in the academy indicates that those charges, however accurate, miss the point. They rest upon standards of coherence and clarity that constructionists delimit as themselves constructs not binding to their own way of thinking. Besides, advocates aim to convince not by their dubious logic or their relativist beliefs. They do not subscribe to any foundations except the one which rules “There are no foundations.” The concepts and distinctions that opponents attack them for mishandling, social constructionists have already negated. They commit the genetic fallacy time and again, but so what? Since they define knowledge as bound to the context of its construction, the genetic fallacy is not a mistake–it is a policy.
The real questions to put to social constructionists are not those of truth, but of tactics. Acknowledging the irrelevance of philosophical disputes, we must ask: If canons of logic do not apply to constructionist thinking, on what does it base its assertions? If all knowledge is bound by time and place, how does constructionist persuasion work outside its time and place? If discovery and justification are one, how does constructionist inquiry justify itself?

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